Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Doctor of Philosophy

Department

Biology

Advisor's Name

Philip K. Stoddard

Advisor's Title

Committee Chair

Advisor's Name

Andrew H. Bass

Advisor's Name

Sneh Gulati

Advisor's Name

Lidia Kos

Advisor's Name

Fernando Noriega

Keywords

male competition, aggressive behavior, communication signal, electric fish, steroid, serotonin receptor

Date of Defense

10-30-2009

Abstract

Sexually-selected communication signals can be used by competing males to settle contests without incurring the costs of fighting. The ability to dynamically regulate the signal in a context-dependent manner can further minimize the costs of male aggressive interactions. Such is the case in the gymnotiform fish Brachyhypopomus gauderio, which, by coupling its electric organ discharge (EOD) waveform to endocrine systems with circadian, seasonal, and behavioral drivers, can regulate its signal to derive the greatest reproductive benefit. My dissertation research examined the functional role of the EOD plasticity observed in male B. gauderio and the physiological mechanisms that regulate the enhanced male EOD. To evaluate whether social competition drives the EOD changes observed during male-male interactions, I manipulated the number of males in breeding groups to create conditions that exemplified low and high competition and measured their EOD and steroid hormone levels. My results showed that social competition drives the enhancement of the EOD amplitude of male B. gauderio. In addition, changes in the EOD of males due to changes in their social environment were paralleled by changes in the levels of androgens and cortisol. I also examined the relationship between body size asymmetry, EOD waveform parameters, and aggressive physical behaviors during male-male interactions in B. gauderio, in order to understand more fully the role of EOD waveforms as reliable signals. While body size was the best determinant of dominance in male B. gauderio, EOD amplitude reliably predicted body condition, a composite of length and weight, for fish in good body condition. To further characterize the mechanisms underlying the relationship between male-male interactions and EOD plasticity, I identified the expression of the serotonin receptor 1A, a key player in the regulation of aggressive behavior, in the brains of B. gauderio. I also identified putative regulatory regions in this receptor in B. gauderio and other teleost fish, highlighting the presence of additional plasticity. In conclusion, male-male competition seems to be a strong selective driver in the evolution of the male EOD plasticity in B. gauderio via the regulatory control of steroid hormones and the serotonergic system.